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Ensuring reliability of child sex assault victim testimony

Children are suggestible. They don't always tell the truth, especially if they think telling another story will keep them from getting into deeper trouble. Sometimes they just haven't developed a vocabulary that allows them to express exactly what they want to say. These issues can have an effect on how sex crime cases involving children develop.

Because of that, all sides in such matters face unique challenges. Police and prosecutors need to take special care to make sure the evidence they gather from alleged child victims is not only accurate, but admissible in court. Experienced defense attorneys know they have an obligation to question that evidence for the sake of their client while showing proper care and respect for the alleged victim. It isn't an easy task.

Until about 30 years ago, awareness across the various professions about the need for taking such special care was lacking. A number of high-profile cases since 1990 changed that. Since then, research has revealed that common police interview strategies don't work well when investigating sex crimes against children. If leading questions are asked, child victims often provide the answer authorities seek. It might not be the truth, however.

Research into how children remember things, how trauma can affect those memories and how improper framing of questions can influence answers has led experts to develop new protocols. They all seek the same thing but use different techniques to achieve the end. There is no consensus on what works best.

In New Jersey, the protocol generally promoted is called "RATAC." It focuses on using visual prompts such as anatomical figures or drawings and clear questions about touching in order to elicit a story about the nature of the alleged abuse. A leading alternative to that is called "NICHD." It emphasizes structuring interviews around open-ended questions to allow the child to develop their own narrative.

That is where things generally stand today. Research is continuing so methods are certain to change going forward. In the meantime, considering the consequences a person can face if convicted of a sex crime against a child, legal observers surely agree that questioning the processes of how evidence is gathered must remain part of a robust defense.

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